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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Kicking the Marshmallow

One of my former teaching colleagues at UT Austin (I’ll call him Jose) was a retired officer of the United States Air Force.  In conversation one day about the difficulties encountered in affecting change in an organization my colleague offered an analogy that captured the challenges in a vivid way.

Jose suggested that trying to affect some kind of lasting change in an organization is akin to kicking a marshmallow.  Not just any marshmallow, though.  Jose said to imagine a monster marshmallow, measuring 10 feet high and 10 feet in diameter.  He said that one could back off and take a full-steam run at such a marshmallow and kick it with all your might.  The result would be a fairly significant dent in the marshmallow.  The “change” had been duly imposed. 

Immediately, however, the marshmallow begins to recover its previous shape, slowly but surely fluffing back out to its original form. 

Such, said Jose, is the way of most attempts at externally imposed “change” or “reform” on organizations.  While the organization (i.e., team, family, school, government, business, etc.) seems compliant to the initial attempt at change, its ingredients and texture somehow seem to conspire to return to its pre-reformed state.

I’ve lived Jose’s kicking-the-marshmallow experience, with similar results. 

Rather than go into a lengthy extension of the analogy, and my own conclusions about change efforts, I’ll simply invite you instead to percolate awhile on its relevance to your context.

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